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1 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design

A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper

An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design

A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper
May 2012

Lattice Semiconductor
5555 Northeast Moore Ct.
Hillsboro, Oregon 97124 USA
Telephone: (503) 268-8000

2 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper
What do the advertisements of the worlds leading phone makers have in common?
Answer: they almost never say anything about using their products to make an actual
phone call unless it happens to be some form of video call.
Instead, they promise to connect you with anyone so that you can share anything. They
tout the hundreds of thousands of apps that you can download. These apps promise to
do everything from helping you clean your carpet to navigating by the stars to a faraway
land, all the while tweeting a stream of real-time updates to your faithful followers the
world over.
Now, all of this might seem like just interesting marketing trivia, but if we dig a little
deeper, we find a profound engineering situation that impacts every smartphone
By adding an Internet browser, the iPhone created a fundamental change in the phones
use model. Instantly, the feature phone became a 24/7 mobile portal to all that the
World Wide Web has to offer. Today, there are approximately 100,000 unique
application developers, servicing all the various smartphones. The size of this
ecosystem is unparalleled in the industry, and one of its many effects on smartphones is
the rapid generation of new requirements. For example, game developers are
clamoring for bigger, better displays as well as smartphone output connections to even
bigger external displays. After all, probably the only thing more righteous than
destroying that last pig in Angry Birds is destroying it on a high-definition big screen in
front of all your friends.
The Effect on Smartphone Designers
This accelerated pace to meet new requirements produces very short product
development cycles. And the pressure to meet these schedules causes more reliance
on standard chips i.e. fully loaded application processors (Systems on a Chip, or
SoC), such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon or the TI OMAP. But now we have a
3 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper
paradox: big chips like application processors take two to three years to develop,
meaning that any device you can buy today was defined two or three years ago
which, at the pace of the smartphone evolution, is an eternity.
Another way to look at this is from the application processor designers perspective.
They must define tomorrows chip using todays knowledge. But even if they succeed,
as soon as the application processor is released in a new smartphone, one hundred
thousand developers will start working on it in an effort to do something new and
different, generating yet more requirements.
So what is a smartphone designer supposed to do? In order to meet your design
schedules, you must use readily available chips. But yesterdays application processors
often fail to meet todays requirements. So you need either to delay your ideas until the
application processor supports them directly (when all of your competitors will also have
access) or you need to supplement the application processor with something else.
Bridging the Application Processor Development Cycle Gap
One solution would be to use an FPGA. You could then do what you wanted with no
waiting. But, until recently, this was not an option. FPGAs were simply too big, too
expensive and too power-hungry for use in smartphones. This is because traditional
FPGAs have been designed for applications that arent limited by the price, power and
space constraints of smartphones.
Increasingly, however, you can find FPGAs that are specifically targeted at the needs of
small, inexpensive, power-sensitive consumer devices and smartphones in particular.
This new breed of FPGA can be used to supplement an application processor and help
bridge the gap in the processor release cycle (Figure 1).
4 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
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Figure 1

Sensor Surplus
No component inside a phone better illustrates the situation weve described than the
sensor. Completely unnecessary for making a phone call, sensors originally were used
for simple functions such as adjusting the displays backlighting based on the ambient
light. But sensors provide much information on the phones environment, and that
information can be used in lots of different ways. As a result, more and more sensors
are being added to smartphones: todays smartphone can have between one and two
dozen different sensors in it.
This creates a problem for the designer, however: how to handle the information coming
from the sensors? The obvious answer is to feed the sensor output to the application
processor, but processors typically have too few of the I
C or SPI ports that sensors
use. This means finding some other way of multiplexing or using general-purpose I/Os
(often with poor performance) to handle the sensor glut.
But heres the challenge: a phone is tiny, and space matters above all else even more
than power. You cant just put multiple discrete components in the phone to increase
5 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper
the number of sensors. Now, if this were any other kind of non-consumer system, the
obvious solution would be to use an FPGA. But, according to conventional wisdom, no
one would put an FPGA in a phone: theyre too big, theyre too expensive and theyre
too power-hungry.
And thats because most FPGAs have been designed for the large number of
applications that arent bothered by these characteristics. Increasingly, however, you
can find FPGAs that are specifically targeted at the needs of small, inexpensive, power-
sensitive consumer devices and phones in particular. These are the application
processor companions that can bridge the promise of new hardware possibilities like
dozens of sensors to the realities of what the application processors can do.
FPGAs in Smartphones
Managing sensors is a good example of how such an application processor companion
can make tomorrows SoC capability available today. The most basic issue to be
addressed is the mismatch between the number of sensors and the number of ports
available on the application processor.
For example, a Qualcomm baseband processor say, the MSM8X55 can only handle
up to threeI
C inputs. A smartphone today will have, at a minimum, three positioning
sensors accelerometer, gyroscope and compass along with a touch panel and a
battery monitor. In order to appeal more to fitness enthusiasts, for example, you may
want to add heart rate and perspiration monitors as well as an altimeter (for hikers).
The touchscreen has to have its own input so that no touch events are missed while
some other sensor is being polled. That means all the other sensors would have to
share the remaining two I
C busses.
An application processor companion can be programmed to add more I
C masters and
be a bridge between the sensors and Qualcomms external bus interface (EBI2). As
shown in Figure 2, all of the I
C functionality is handled in the application processor
companion, and the sensor output is then buffered in FIFOs and delivered through a
high-speed EBI2 interface without using any I
C ports at all.
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Figure 2

Offloading the Application Processor
Expanding the number of ports available to an application processor can be helpful, but
it can also make a different problem worse. The application processor typically has to
do work to process sensor data, and, the more sensors there are, the more work it has
to do.
For example, inertial measurement units, like gyroscopes and accelerometers, simply
provide a value at their output, either rotational or translational acceleration,
respectively. They dont tell you when their value changes. That means that something
typically the application processorhas to poll constantly to confirm whether or not
there has been a change. Even if the application processor has nothing else to do, this
can prevent the application processor from going into sleep mode, increasing power
Whats needed is a way to offload the sensor management tasks from the application
processor, and an FPGA that can act as an application processor companion is an
effective way to do this (Figure 3). You can create an auto-polling block and track the
values, alerting the application processor when there has been a change that requires

Master #0
Application Processor Companion
Battery Monitor
Touch Panel
Master #1
Master #2
Master #3
Master #4
Heart-rate Monitor
Perspiration Monitor
7 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
A Lattice Semiconductor White Paper
some action. This effectively transforms the sensor reading from a pull to a push,
allowing the application processor to ignore the sensor until interrupted.

Figure 3
On the other end of the spectrum, some sensors, like touch sensors, already provide an
interrupt signal so that the application processor doesnt have to deal with it until theres
an event of interest. The problem is, when you get multiple fingers touching the sensor
and swiping, the huge number of interrupts potentially thousands of them easily
overwhelms the application processor. Here again, an application processor
companion can manage the flood of interrupts, as shown in Figure 4, sorting through
them to filter out the noise and deliver only those of interest to the application processor.
This frees the application processor from meaningless distractions, allowing it to focus
on more substantive tasks.

Figure 4
Application Processor Companion
Application Processor Companion
Touch Panel
C Bus
C Bus
8 An FPGA Companion in Smartphone Design
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Note that you can also handle interface conversion at the same time. While the
application processor shown above may accept an I
C input, by including an SPI
interface in the application processor companion, you can reuse the same design for a
different application processor requiring an SPI interface, or perhaps for an application
processor whose I
C ports have already been committed to some other purpose.
These are examples of ways in which an FPGA functioning as an application
processor companion can be paired with an application processor, designed three
years ago, to allow you to take advantage of your new ideas today not three years
from now.
Lattice Semiconductors iCE40 mobileFPGA is a good example an FPGA
specifically designed for the small footprint, low power and low cost requirements of
smartphones. The FPGA makes it possible to keep up with the dizzying pace of
innovation as smartphone life spans continue to shrink, while at the same time giving
the mere conversation a back seat to all the other incredible things a phone can do.